Rev. Key is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Hull, Iowa. Previous article in this series: December 7, 2007, p. 133.
As we continue our consideration of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper we must remember that the sacrament is a means of grace. But that grace is not for all. Because grace is not in things. It is not in the water of baptism, nor in the bread and wine of the Lord’s table. Grace is not in things.
Always the means of grace must be understood in terms of God’s work of sovereign, particular grace. The preaching and the sacraments minister grace only to elect believers.
That the sacraments are means of grace implies faith. The sacraments are means of grace for believers, no one else.
That is true of preaching too. The preaching ministers grace to the hearers. But not to all hearers. It ministers grace to those who are alive spiritually. The same is true with the sacraments.
The Holy Spirit ministers grace to the people of God, to believers, by means. The Lord’s Supper testifies to us who believe, that we have a full pardon of all sin by the only sacrifice of Jesus Christ, which He Himself has once accomplished on the cross, and that we by the Holy Spirit are ingrafted into Christ. That means that we must approach the Lord’s table as proper partakers of that holy supper.
Improper Partakers Forbidden
Who are the proper partakers of the Lord’s Supper?
We may say, in the first place, that the Supper has been instituted for sincere believers. All others are forbidden to partake of the sacrament.
The Heidelberg Catechism, in Question and Answer 82, emphasizes that there are some who may not partake of the holy sacrament. For “hypocrites, and such as turn not to God with sincere hearts, eat and drink judgment to themselves.”
That is a matter of emphasis in I Corinthians 11:27, 29: “Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord…. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body.”
The Lord’s Supper is not instituted for those who by confession and life declare themselves unbelieving and ungodly. Certainly the elders have a calling to prevent such from profaning the sacrament.
But there are others who may not partake. The Supper is not open to hypocrites. There will be such who do partake. They do so to their own condemnation. But the Lord’s Supper is not open to them. They have no right to partake. But you and I have no recourse, if they partake in hypocrisy. That is because we do not know who are hypocrites.
Hypocrites are those who appear outwardly to be people of God, and who confess that they are the people of God, but who are not. As long as a person remains a hypocrite, you and I cannot detect him. We may sometimes have a very uncomfortable feeling that someone is a hypocrite, because his life appears to be full of contradictions when it comes to what Scripture reveals about the life of a true believer. But until a man finally rejects the truth and apostatizes from the faith, we must be very careful not to judge him to be a hypocrite.
Hypocrites are not merely sinful believers. Hypocrites are ungodly!
A hypocrite hides behind a mask, a religiousmask. He knows all the right terms. He can speak the correct language. He can speak of being saved by Christ, of having his sins forgiven. But there is no love for God, no love for His truth, no fear of God, no striving for holiness. His Christianity is only a mask. And as long as there is no suffering and no persecution connected with being a member of the church, a hypocrite can stay hidden behind that mask.
But although you and I cannot detect him, the Word of God itself uncovers that man’s mask to his own conscience. The preaching of that Word, as the keys of the kingdom, shuts the door of heaven to such a man. The Word provokes him; it does not comfort him.
And when such a man in his brazen hardness of heart partakes of the Lord’s Supper, he eats and drinks judgment to himself, trampling the blood of Christ underfoot. The judgment that he receives in the Lord’s Supper is the judgment that is always executed by God in the ministry of the Word and sacraments— the hardening of the heart. Where the Word does not save and comfort, it hardens. The Lord’s Supper, as a means of grace, is closed to the hypocrite.
The same is true concerning the insincere. The Catechism makes a distinction between hypocrites on the one hand, and such as turn not to God with sincere hearts on the other hand. It is possible that a child of God be insincere for a time. It is possible that a child of God come to the table with insincerity because of a certain sin that he does not want to let go of, or because of a temporary misplaced love for the world and the things of the world that he is unable to give up. That is possible. It is possible to approach God in our sins, and attempt to obtain the forgiveness of sins. But that is insincere.
He also eats and drinks judgment to himself as long as he is in that state. When one insincerely partakes of the Lord’s Supper, laying claim to the forgiveness that is in Christ Jesus, while continuing in sin, his faith is weakened.
Oh yes, if this insincere one is a child of God, God will convert him or her. He will issue His powerful call to repentance through the Word, and influence the sinner by His Spirit, so that the sinner turns from his evil ways.
But the Lord’s Supper is not for those who are insincere. The Lord’s Supper is for sincere believers.
What About Children?
It is fitting in this connection that we face the question concerning the place of children at the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.
We believe that children of believers, organically considered, are incorporated into the church and covenant of God, baptized as heirs of the kingdom of God and of His covenant, being received unto grace in Christ. Much of the Reformed church world in recent years has changed its historic position, which disallows children the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, and now accept and even promote children coming to the Lord’s table. The accusation is now leveled that by refusing to allow children to partake of the Lord’s Supper, we deny them something they have a right to as members of God’s covenant.
In addition, those who accept children as partakers of the Lord’s Supper point to the fact that in the Old Testament children were partakers of the Passover feast, and that their practice, therefore, is consistent with Old Testament practice.
We must immediately point out that this last argument presupposes wrongly that the Passover is the Old Testament equivalent of the Lord’s Supper. It is not. There is certainly a relationship between the Passover and the Lord’s Supper, but they are not equivalent. The Lord’s Supper is the fulfillment of the Passover. But the Passover feast does not carry the same significance as the Lord’s Supper.
We must not forget the difference between baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Although both are signs and seals of the covenant of grace and the righteousness that is ours by faith in Christ, they do differ. Baptism is a sign of incorporation into Christ. The Lord’s Supper, however, is a sign not of incorporation, but of maturity and strengthening in the fellowship of Christ.
In addition, in this dispensation of the fullness of time and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, there is an increased personal responsibility, a weightier personal calling, that comes with the gift of the Holy Spirit. That is the emphasis in I Corinthians 11:26-29. The Belgic Confession emphasizes that same truth in the last part of Article 35, when it says:
Lastly, we receive this holy sacrament in the assembly of the people of God with humility and reverence, keeping up amongst us a holy remembrance of the death of Christ our Savior with thanksgiving, making there confession of our faith and of the Christian religion. Therefore no one ought to come to this table without having previously rightly examined himself, lest by eating of this bread and drinking of this cup he eat and drink judgment to himself.
You will notice that the Confession speaks of making “confession of our faith and of the Christian religion,” as well as using the language of I Corinthians 11 about rightly examining ourselves. Those are significant conscious activities of the heart and mind.
In I Corinthians 11:26 we are told that partaking of the Lord’s Supper is to proclaim or declarethe Lord’s death. That indicates that one must be aware of what he is actually doing when celebrating the Lord’s Supper. The sin seen in Corinth was exactly that the Lord’s Supper had become a common meal. The solution to that problem was to restore the meaning of the sacrament and to make it once again a proclamation of the Lord of the covenant and of His grace and glory.
Still more, I Corinthians 11:28 calls us to self-examination. All who will partake of the Lord’s Supper must test themselves. That examination is carefully set forth in our Form for the Administration of the Lord’s Supper. From the Form we read this:
The true examination of ourselves consists of these three parts:
First. That every one consider by himself his sins and the curse due to him for them, to the end that he may abhor and humble himself before God, considering that the wrath of God against sin is so great, that (rather than it should go unpunished) He hath punished the same in His beloved Son Jesus Christ with the bitter and shameful death of the cross.
Secondly. That every one examine his own heart, whether he doth believe this faithful promise of God that all his sins are forgiven him only for the sake of the passion and death of Jesus Christ, and that the perfect righteousness of Christ is imputed and freely given him as his own, yea, so perfectly as if he had satisfied in his own person for all his sins and fulfilled all righteousness.
Thirdly. That every one examine his own conscience, whether he purposeth henceforth to show true thankfulness to God in his whole life and to walk uprightly before him; as also, whether he hath laid aside unfeignedly all enmity, hatred, and envy, and doth firmly resolve henceforward to walk in true love and peace with his neighbor. All those, then, who are thus disposed, God will certainly receive in mercy and count them worthy partakers of the table of His Son Jesus Christ. On the contrary, those who do not feel this testimony in their hearts eat and drink judgment to themselves.
You will notice that these three points of examination correspond exactly to the three parts of the Heidelberg Catechism, namely, the three parts of knowledge necessary to enjoy our only comfort in life and death. The knowledge of true faith, therefore, has to precede access to the Lord’s table.
These things having been said, we ought to emphasize, however, the importance of preparing our children for confession of faith. That is not something to be postponed. One will mature sooner than another. But when children have been instructed in the faith for several years, it is not out of line to expect many of them to confess their faith by the time they are sixteen or seventeen, in some instances even younger, and certainly by the time they are able to make important decisions in life.
The Protestant Reformed Churches have not been influenced by the mystical pietism that gave rise to the Netherlands Reformed congregations, where young people were taught that they had to tell their conversion story before being admitted to the Lord’s table, and that this was not possible when they were young. For that reason many waited till late in life to confess their faith or did not dare to do so at all. Others took the position that confessing faith simply meant confessinghistorical faith, which somehow (in gross error) granted the right to have their children baptized, but not to partake of the Lord’s Supper.
In the Protestant Reformed Churches it seems that there are other factors causing a postponement of confession of faith, and that in certain areas or congregations rather than others. But those factors must be addressed. We must stress to our children that it is a great privilege to be born as a child of the covenant and raised under the instruction of God’s Word. And it is a great privilege and calling to confess our faith, in order that we may also proclaim Christ’s death and resurrection as part of His bride at the communion table.